by Kathy Witt
Sitting in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, the lights of its parkway flashing like a beacon to fun seekers from miles away, Pigeon Forge, Tenn. reigns as a vacation destination. Not to overstate, there are the mountains – ancient forested ridges straddling the Tennessee–North Carolina border.
There are the countless entertainment venues, music theaters, wacky golf, pancake houses and themed dinner shows – everything from Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud to Dolly Parton’s Stampede. And then there is Parton herself, megastar with a megawatt smile and entertainer extraordinaire, whose legions of fans may contend that she had as much to do with turning this Appalachian community into a tourist mecca as the mountains themselves.
Here are three reasons visitors flock to Pigeon Forge, a town that took its name from the extinct passenger pigeon:
The Great Smoky Mountains and magnificent mountain views
The number one reason people come to the Great Smoky Mountains – the most visited national park in the country – is for the views. Following at a close second is the wildlife. This is why the population of a town of about 6,000 residents annually swells to more than 10 million. In fact, on a busy day, Pigeon Forge’s parkway can teem with some 50,000 people.
More than 1,600 black bears live and lumber about the wilds of the park. Visitors may spot them – along with turkey, ground hogs, coyotes, white-tailed deer and other animals – while driving the one-way, 11-mile Cades Cove loop. The drive also affords breathtaking views of the looming, layered peaks of the Smokies.
Hikers get up-close views of mountain streams, chimneys and stone walls and other evidence of past inhabitants and an astonishing array of wildflowers. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known around the world for its preserve of wildflower diversity; it has nearly as many kinds of flowering plants as it does bears.
Everything’s coming up Dolly – Dolly Parton, that is
Dolly Parton’s entertainment empire is impressive: Dollywood, Dollywood’s Splash Country Water Park, Dolly Parton’s Stampede, the Smoky Mountain Opry, the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud, the Comedy Barn, Magic Beyond Belief and Pirates Voyage.
In 2015, Parton opened the Southern manse-like Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa. A special natural gas-powered trolley transports resort guests to Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country. DreamMore is in addition to the more than 100 Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Cabins teetering above the clouds and offering sweeping views of the Smokies. Oh, and the Dolly Parton Parkway is named in her honor.
“What I’m most proud of,” Parton said during an opening day press conference at the park, “I got to build a place where I can honor my family and give jobs to people.”
What’s new: Wildwood Grove. Based on Parton’s own childhood imaginings and daydreams, the largest expansion in the park’s history features the natural habitat Black Bear Trail; climate-controlled Hidden Hollow with climbing structures, slides and games; rides including the Mad Mockingbird and Dragonflier; and area focal point, the Wildwood Tree.
Titanic Pigeon Forge – the world’s largest museum attraction
From the sweeping Grand Staircase to the grim gated and locked third class compartment whose occupants would have seen the stairway fill with rushing water, Titanic presents the story of The Unsinkable and its 2,208 passengers and crew.
Half the size of the original, this Titanic displays a carefully chosen 400-plus artifacts, each an authentic item either carried off the ship or recovered from the floating debris field after the sinking. It includes the largest collection of Titanic photographs in existence. Pick up a Boarding Pass of an actual Titanic passenger/crew member at the beginning of the tour; learn their fate by the end.
What’s coming: The museum acquired six of the remaining 12 Titanic life jackets in existence. The jackets will join the one already in the collection a special exhibit opening on July 1.
Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Cabins are positioned to take advantage of the views that annually bring millions of visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains and Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
Dolly Parton held an impromptu press conference on May 11, the day Dollywood opened for the 2019 season and the new Wildwood expansion made its debut.
Photo: Kathy Witt
Dollywood is known for the beauty of the park as much as for the rides, shows and other attractions.
Titanic Pigeon Forge is an absolute gem of a museum on Pigeon Forge’s Parkway.
Photo: Titanic Pigeon Forge
Aboard Titanic Pigeon Forge, the Grand Staircase is constructed from the original Harland & Wolff plans, right down to its oak carvings and cherub statue.
Photo: Titanic Pigeon Forge